The History of England

from Celts through 20th century

Britain after Waterloo

Category: 19th century

In Britain, the general rejoicings that followed the victory over Napoleon were not well founded. The British had assumed that the ending of war would open a vast market for their goods and had piled up stocks accordingly. Instead, there was an immediate fall in the demand for them. Eu­rope was still too disturbed and too poor to take any great quantity of British manufactured goods.

King George IV

One important market had been actually opened by the war, which had cut Spain off from South America and left its colonies virtually in­dependent. This, however, had only led to crazy specu­lation and the flooding of the market with all kinds of goods for many of which no possible demand existed. There was also possibility to trade in the West Indies as well as in the Far East, but these markets could atasorb only a limited quantity of the British goods.

As a result of it in 1815 exports and imports fell. There was a heavy slump in wholesale prices. Thus, iron fell from £20 to £8 a ton. Most of the blast-furnaces went out of production and thousands of workers lost their work.

The crisis was also intensified by other causes. Three hundred thousand demobilized soldiers and sail­ors were forced to compete in an already overstocked labour market. Wages fell considerably, while prices were kept artificially high by the policy of inflation which Pitt had begun in 1797 when he allowed the Bank of England to issue paper money without a proper gold backing. Taxation was kept at a high level by the huge Debt charges, amounting in 1820 to £30,000,000 out of a total revenue of £53,000,000. The reckless bor­rowing by means of which the war had been financed left a heavy burden upon several generations of the British. Inflation and high taxes prevented the rapid recovery of industry.

This post-war crisis was marked by a sudden out­burst of class conflict. A series of disturbances began with the introduction of the Corn Bill in 1815 and went on until the close of the year 1816. In London riots ensued and were continued for several days, while the Bill was discussed in Parliament. At Bridport there were riots on account of the high price of bread. At Bideford there were similar disturbances to prevent the export of grain. At Bury St. Edmunds and any other towns the unemployed made attempts to de­stroy machinery. They regarded machinery as enemy that deprived them of their work. Machine wrecking was inspired by the ideas of a certain Ludd, and peo­ple who joined it were called the Luddites.

The Luddite riots centred in the Nottingham ho­siery area, where the introduction of new production methods into a semi-domestic industry had cut prices to a point at which the hand stocking knitters found it almost impossible to make a living. Machine wrecking took place also in many other towns. Every method of repression, including military violence, was used by the government to suppress the Luddite riots.

In 1819 huge meetings were held all over the North and Midlands, demanding Parliamentary Reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. One such meeting was held at St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester, on August 16th, when 80,000 people assembled to hear a well-known radical speaker Hunt. When Hunt began to speak he was arrested and the yeomanry suddenly charged into the crowd, hacking blindly with their sabres in all di­rections.

In a few minutes eleven people were killed and about 400, including over 100 women, were wounded. The brutality of this attack on a peaceful crowd, and the callousness with which it was defended by the government, made the necessity for Reform clearer than ever to the industrial workers, and at the same time convinced many of the middle class that Reform was the only alternative to a policy of repression that would lead unevitably to civil war. From this time Parliamentary Reform began to be “respectable” and to appear prominently on the programme of the Whigs. But the immediate result of the “Peterloo Massacre” was a tightening of the repression. Hunt and other radicals were arrested and imprisoned. Some of them were forced to seek a temporary refuge in America.

In November 1819, the “Six Acts” were passed by Parliament. These Acts made organized legal agitation for Reform more difficult. They gave the local author­ities powers to prevent meetings of more than fifty persons and to search private houses where they sus­pected arms were hidden. They forbade any kind of processions with bands or banners. They made pub­lishers of “blasphemous and seditious libels” liable to imprisonment or transportation and placed a tax on all newspapers and pamphlets. The object of this was to make radical papers too dear for most part of the popu­lation.

The “Six Acts” of 1819 were followed by a tempo­rary diminution of Radical agitation. For this they were perhaps less responsible than the revival of industry that began in 1820 and continued up to the boom year of 1826. Such a revival was inevitable once the effects of the war had passed, because British industry really had a world monopoly at this time. Manufacturers liked to talk about foreign competition but actually no other country had any considerable large-scale industry or any surplus of manufactured goods for export. France and the United States were just beginning to develop a cotton textile industry, but even by 1833 their com­bined output was only two-thirds of that of Britain. In mining and the iron and steel industries British su­premacy was equally marked.

Exports increased from £48,000,000 in 1820 to £56,000,000 in 1825 and imports from £32,000,000 to £44,000,000. But this was only one side of the expan­sion. The same period was marked by the steady de­cline of the British small-scale and domestic industry before the competition of the factories. The decline of domestic industries was uneven, taking place in the cotton before the linen and woolen industries, in spin­ning before weaving and in East Anglia and the West Country before the North and Midlands. It was not completed before the 1840′s, and was the cause of the most widespread and prolonged suffering. But it di­vided the working classes into sections with different interests and wrongs, and forced those who were the worst sufferers into futile and objectively reactionary forms of protest.

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